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NIMH’s Approach to Mental Health Disparities Research

NIMH Strategic Framework for Addressing Youth Mental Health Disparities

The purpose of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Strategic Framework for Addressing Youth Mental Health Disparities for fiscal years 2022–2031 is to provide a conceptual approach to help guide NIMH activities, including research funding, stakeholder engagement, and workforce development, related to research on the mental health needs of youth impacted by racial and ethnic health disparities. For the purposes of this Framework, “youth” is defined as persons aged 24 and under.

Addressing Mental Health Disparities Through Research

Striking disparities exist in the prevalence, course, and outcomes of mental illnesses within the United States. Individuals from underserved communities frequently experience reduced access to high-quality, evidence-based mental health services and receive fewer follow-ups in a variety of provider settings.

NIMH supports research to advance policies and practices that aim to reduce mental health disparities, promote equity, and address the needs of individuals from underserved communities and those who are underrepresented in health research.

NIMH encourages researchers to examine underlying causes of mental health disparities as well as to explore ways to test novel approaches to reduce disparities. By studying social, biological, and behavioral mechanisms, we hope to gain a better understanding of disparities in prevalence, course, and outcomes of mental disorders, as well as disparities in access to care across diverse populations.

Race, ethnicity, and sexual and gender minority identity are associated with systemic- and structural-level determinants of mental health status, including socioeconomic status or proximity to care. Because these factors may be associated with differences in responses to interventions and/or engagement with mental health services, research on possible differences related to the etiology of mental disorders may provide information fundamental to the development of more effective interventions.

NIMH’s Role in Mental Health Disparities Research

Disparities Team

In 2018, the NIMH Director established the NIMH Disparities Team to bring together staff from across NIMH Offices and Divisions to better align disparities research portfolios across the Institute.

The team’s mission is to:

  • Promote innovative and high-impact research aimed at enhancing our understanding of mental health disparities and minority mental health
  • Find ways to reduce mental health disparities and the impact of disparities on individuals and communities
  • Promote mental health equity

Office for Disparities Research and Workforce Diversity (ODWD)

To further support efforts to focus on mental health disparities research, and to optimize the structure of the Institute, the NIMH Director created the Office for Disparities Research and Workforce Diversity (ODWD), a component of the Office of the Director. The office was initially announced in early 2019 and was officially established in 2020. Components of ODWD include cross-cutting programs on minority mental health and women’s mental health research, as well as the Office of Rural Mental Health Research (ORMHR).

ODWD coordinates NIMH-funded research initiatives relevant to mental health disparities, minority mental health, women’s mental health, sexual and gender minority mental health, and mental health in underserved rural communities. NIMH has made strides to enhance its focus on mental health disparities research in the United States by ensuring broad, institute-wide coordination to develop and sustain a robust disparities research portfolio.

Collaborations with Other NIH Institutes, Centers, and Offices

Collaborations and partnerships are critical to strengthen NIMH’s efforts to enhance and support disparities research, and ultimately reduce mental health disparities. To that end, and in accordance with the 21st Century Cures Act , NIMH continues to partner with other NIH Institutes, Centers, and Offices (ICOs) to ensure activities take into account the health needs of NIH-designated U.S. health disparity and racial and ethnic minority populations  and are focused on reducing health disparities.

NIMH engages actively and frequently with NIH ICOs focused specifically on research on disparities, such as the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) , the Tribal Health Research Office (THRO) , and the Sexual and Gender Minority Research Office (SGMRO) .

Community Engagement

NIMH also recognizes the need for community engagement in all stages of research to increase our understanding of the causes of, and approaches to eliminating, mental health disparities. Input from external stakeholders can inform health disparities research across basic, translation, clinical, and implementation science—helping to broaden its acceptability, dissemination, and impact.

NIMH Priorities for Mental Health Disparities Research

NIMH has developed a set of priority areas focused on identifying mechanisms associated with disparities in the prevalence, course, and outcomes of mental illnesses, and on testing interventions aimed at promoting equity and improving the mental health status of racial and ethnic minorities and other NIH-recognized health disparities groups in the United States.

NIMH will use the following priorities to strategically guide the activities of Divisions, Offices, and Teams that support health disparities research. These Priority Areas align with, and serve to supplement, the NIMH Strategic Plan for Research.

  • Priority Area 1: Support research to investigate ways to reduce suicide and suicidal behavior among specific underserved and minoritized populations (e.g., American Indian/Alaska Native youth, Black youth, Latinx, Asian, rural populations, sexual and gender minorities).
  • Priority Area 2: Enhance NIMH support of research engaging study populations from underrepresented, underserved, and under-resourced communities.
  • Priority Area 3: Support research to identify mechanisms of action that contribute to the persistence of mental health disparities, and to identify modifiable targets to guide the development and testing of novel or optimized interventions.
  • Priority Area 4: Advance implementation research to improve access to, and utilization of, quality care among underserved, underrepresented, and under-resourced populations by emphasizing community-based interventions and incorporating multilevel decision-making perspectives.
  • Priority Area 5: Foster research on employing multi-stakeholder, collaborative, and integrated approaches to reduce disparities in mental illnesses and access to/use of mental health care.

Note: Potential applicants are strongly encouraged to consult with NIH staff as early as possible when developing plans for an application. This early contact will provide an opportunity to clarify NIH policies and guidelines and help to identify whether the proposed project is consistent with NIMH program priorities. Contact information for NIMH program staff, as well as a brief description of NIMH’s research programs, can be found on the Extramural Programs and Contacts webpage.

NIMH Health Disparities Research Resources